IBM scientists build teeny tiny Matterhorn

IBM scientists have made a 3D map of the earth so tiny that 1,000 of them could fit on a grain of salt.

They didn’t do it just for the hell of it, they assure us – the techniques involved could have important applications in electronics and chip development.

Using a tiny silicon needle with a sharp point — 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil — they were able to produce structures as small as 15 nanometers across.

The world map, measuring just 22 by 11 micrometers, was etched on a polymer called polyphthalaldehyde, and a 25-nanometer-high 3D replica of the Matterhorn was created in molecular glass, representing a scale of 1:5 billion.

The obligatory nano-sized IBM logo was etched 400-nm-deep into silicon, in a way comparable to typical nanofabrication applications.

“Advances in nanotechnology are intimately linked to the existence of high-quality methods and tools for producing nanoscale patterns and objects on surfaces,” said physicist Dr Armin Knoll of IBM Research.

“With its broad functionality and unique 3D patterning capability, this nanotip-based patterning methodology is a powerful tool for generating very small structures.”

The tip, a bit like those used in atomic force microscopes, is attached to a bendable cantilever that scans the surface of the substrate material with one-nanometer accuracy. By applying heat and force, the nano-sized tip can etch away substrate material precisely.

The technique is a tenth the price of e-beam lithography, says IBM, and is already far more accurate. It’s also really fast: the world map was created in just two minutes and 23 seconds.